STOCKHOLM — Grinning for the camera, a man in Syrian army fatigues rests his boot on a corpse. Around him, more bodies litter the floor.
The photograph resembles hundreds, if not thousands, of images that have streamed out of Syria during six years of war. But for prosecutors a 3,000-mile drive away in the Swedish capital of Stockholm, this one was different.
The photo was presented as evidence in a trial that ended in a landmark conviction last week, the first anywhere in the world of a Syrian soldier for crimes committed during the war.
Monitoring groups say President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are responsible for most of the atrocities committed in Syria’s war, but cases previously tried in Sweden have involved fighters for the Islamic State or rebel forces.
Mohammed Abdullah, 32, was sentenced to eight months in prison for violating the personal dignity of the men lying at his feet in the photograph.
With the U.N. Security Council deadlocked over Syria’s war and international willingness for high-level prosecution fading, lawyers have turned to the principal of universal jurisdiction, which allows national courts to investigate certain international crimes.
But in a sign of the limitations of some cases against Assad’s government and security forces in European courts, Judge Anders Larsson threw out the more serious charge of execution, citing a lack of evidence.
“The downsides of a universal jurisdiction process like this is that it is taking place in a state with no natural tie to the country where a case took place.You can’t easily get a witness out of Syria to come and testify,” said Kevin Heller, an associate professor of international law at the University of Amsterdam, referring to the legal provision under which the Swedish case was brought.
In the United States, a legal team has launched proceedings against the Syrian government over its alleged targeting of an American journalist, Marie Colvin, in 2012. In Germany and Spain, charges also have been brought against high-ranking members of Assad’s security apparatus.
The case in Sweden had been years in the making, according to prosecutors and activists involved.
Shortly after Abdullah arrived in Sweden to claim asylum in 2015, Syrian activists alerted the country’s Migration Board of photographs on his Facebook page indicating that he had fought as a member of Assad’s army, appearing to show that he had committed human rights abuses in the process.
Initial efforts to bring charges failed for lack of evidence, and it took time for the Sweden-based team of lawyers and Syrian activists to convince authorities that the former soldier should be arrested again.
Rami Hamido, director of the Syrian Al Kawakibi Organization for Human Rights now living in Sweden, said the meetings were followed by what felt like endless periods of silence. “It took a long time,” he said.
Then Hamido and fellow activists started to receive death threats by phone.
“They were against you, your family, your relatives in Syria. It made us feel like the regime’s hand could reach us anywhere,” said Hamido, who traveled to Stockholm from his home in Halmstad, in southern Sweden, last Monday to await news of Abdullah’s sentence.
The former soldier’s story had changed over two court proceedings. At first, he had told a judge that he was working as a Syrian army doctor and had never carried a weapon. As evidence mounted to the contrary, he said he had been forced by his unit commander to pose for the photograph in front of the corpses, and that the men were Islamic State militants.
Struggling for manpower, the Syrian army has relied on conscripts throughout the war. Activists monitoring Hamido’s Facebook page provided images appearing to show the former soldier describing his role as an “honor.”
Without corroborating witnesses, Larsson was unable to rule on the allegation that he had executed the men he posed with.
“You have to keep in mind we only have one similar precedent in a court in Skane and the accused was sentenced six months,” Larsson said in an interview this week, referring to a case involving an Islamic State militant who had been photographed clutching a severed head.
But Monday’s trial had symbolic importance, Heller said. “It served as a reminder to potential defendants in Syria that the international community isn’t completely insensitive to the need to bring some sort of accountability,” he said.
Hamido’s reaction was one of relief and exhaustion, despite disappointment at the length of the sentence.
“It was a very long day for me, but it sent a good message. That justice will reach everyone and accountability is coming,” Hamido said. “I have been saying it since the beginning. There will be no peace without justice, and no justice without accountability.”
Loveluck reported from Beirut.